Friday, April 17, 2015

J-Speaks: 2014-15 NBA Playoff Preview

It less than 24 hours, the 2014-15 NBA Playoffs, one of the most anticipated in many years will begin and there is no shortage of storylines. The No. 1 Seeds in the East and West are trying to complete their historic seasons with a title. The defending NBA champions are trying to replicate what there in state rivals accomplished 20 years ago. The newest NBA sensation makes his playoff debut. There will be April basketball in New York. A four-time MVP is trying to win his city’s first pro sports title in over five decades and one of the best lead guards in the game is trying to get himself and his team to a place where they have never been. Here is the 2014-15 NBA Playoff preview.
Eastern Conference

(1)   Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets

       (60-22)                      (38-44)

-Season series: Hawks won 4-0
It has been a long time since the ATL’s basketball team has been in the conversation as a team that can win it all.
Thanks to a franchise record 60-win season, winning their first division crown since 1993-94 capturing the Central Division, where their head coach Mike Budenholzer is in the running for coach of the year and that they had four All-Stars this season in Kyle Korver (12.1 ppg, 48.7 FG%, 49.2 3-Pt.%), Jeff Teague (15.9 ppg, 7.0 apg, 1.7 spg) Paul Millsap (16.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Al Horford (15.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and a team-first philosophy as they became the first team since the 2004-05 then Charlotte Bobcats to not have a player score 30 points or more in any game this season. That Bobcats team though won just 18 games.
The Hawks hope to make their eighth consecutive appearance in the postseason a good one as it begins against the Brooklyn Nets, who they defeated all four times this season.
The Hawks, who finished 7-8 down the stretch of this season have some concerns entering the playoffs.
For starters they will be without their best perimeter defender in swingman Thabo Sefolosha as he and his teammate forward Pero Antic were arrested in New York last week during a crazy incident in a night spot which left Sefolosha with a leg injury that will keep him out of the playoffs.
That will put more pressure on the likes of DeMarre Carroll (12.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 39.5 3-Pt.%) and Kent Bazemore and to keep contain the Nets’ starting guards Joe Johnson (14.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 35.9 3-Pt.%) and Deron Williams (13.0 ppg, 6.6 apg).
Speaking of the Nets, the only reason that they are even in the playoffs to begin with is that the Indiana Pacers fell on Wednesday night at the Memphis Grizzlies 95-83 to give the Nets the last playoff spot. They went just 6-4 in their remaining 10 games.
If the Nets have any chance of pulling the upset, they need starting center Brook Lopez (17.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg) to be great. Prior to the All-Star break, Lopez was averaging just 15.7 points and 6.2 boards as the Nets were 17-25. Since then Lopez has averaged 19.7 points, 9.2 rebounds on 52.5 percent shooting and the Nets went 17-13. Lopez outplays Horford, the Nets can make this a series.
The Nets also needs the aforementioned starting backcourt of Williams and Johnson to play to their All-Star potential. If they shot 43.5 percent and 38.7 percent respectably from the floor like they did during the regular season, the Nets will go home very quickly.
Another key in this series who amongst the supporting cast for each team will rise to the forefront. Will it be Thaddeus Young (13.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Jarrett Jack (12.0 ppg, 4.7 apg); Bogan Bogdanovic (9.0 ppg, 35.5 3-Pt.%), Mason Plumlee (8.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Alan Anderson (7.4 ppg, 34.8 3-Pt.%) for the Nets or will it be Carroll (12.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg,39.5 3-Pt.%), Dennis Schroder (10.0 ppg, 4.1 apg), Mike Scott (7.8 ppg) and Antic (5.7 ppg).
Last season the Hawks were the No. 8 Seed and took the Pacers to the limit before falling in seven games. Now being on the opposite side, they will follow the formula of a collective effort and making the extra pass to lead them past this round and beyond.
-Prediction: Hawks in five.

(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards

           (49-33)                                 (46-36)

-Season series: Raptors won 3-0
Historically, the No. 4 Seed versus the No. 5 Seed in the postseason matches up two teams regardless of conference as two teams that are evenly matched.
This matchup features two teams that made stellar seasons for the first time in a while and made the playoffs.
They both came into this season with expectations and both early on met them combining for a 46-15 record through Dec. 29, 2014.
Both teams went south after that as the Raptors and Wizards went 25-26 and 24-28 respectably since that date.
Both teams lost their starting two guards as All-Star DeMar DeRozan (20.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg) of the Raptors and Bradley Beal (15.3 ppg, 40.9 3-Pt.%) for 22 and 19 games respectably because of injuries.
The starting frontcourts for both of these teams in Marcin Gortat (12.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Nene (11.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Paul Pierce (11.9 ppg, 44.7 fg%, 38.9 3-Pt.%) of the Wizards and Amir Johnson (9.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Jonas Valanciunas (12.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and Terrence Ross (9.8 ppg, 37.2 3-Pt.%) have been inconsistent and that is being kind.
The one player in this series that will be a major factor in dictating the outcome is Wizards floor general John Wall (17.6 ppg-lead team, 10.0 apg-2nd NBA, 1.7 spg-leads team), who lead all guards with 40 double-doubles.
The Raptors lead guard Kyle Lowry will have the task of slowing down the Wizards’ two-time All-Star, but the Raptors will need Lowry (17.8 ppg, 7.8 apg) to get back to the form that made him the starting lead guard at the All-Star Game back in February.
Before the All-Star break, Lowry was rolling averaging 18.6 points, 7.2 assists and the Raptors were 36-17. After the midseason classic, he has averaged just 15.2 points and 5.4 assists and the team has gone just 7-10. On top of all of that, he was dealing with a back issue along with other nagging injuries that forced him to miss time.
One big X-Factor that the Raptors have in their favor is Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams, the team’s third leading scorer at 15.5 points per game.
He along with back-up guard Greivis Vasquez (9.5 ppg, 3.7 apg, 37.9 3-Pt.%), Patrick Patterson (8.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg 37.1 3-Pt.%), James Johnson (7.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Tyler Hansbrough bring a grit, spark and attitude off the pine that might be a too much for the Wizards reserves of Kris Humphries (8.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Ramon Sessions (7.4 ppg), Otto Porter, Jr. (6.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg) and Drew Gooden to handle.
On top of that, the Raptors are an outstanding three-point shooting team, topping their franchise mark from last season with 713 connections from distance with 726. The Raptors were 24-7 this season when they made at least 10 three-pointers and they are the only team this season to have five players in Williams (152), Ross (145), Vasquez (133), Lowry (132) and Patterson with (104) with 100 trifectas made or more.
This series features two teams that record wise had one their best seasons in many years. The Raptors going another season without winning 50 games, won their second straight Atlantic Division title and won a franchise record 49 games. They are trying to win their first playoff series since 2001 when Vince Carter lead the team to a first round win over the New York Knicks 3-2. They lost in the Semifinals to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers and league MVP Allen Iverson in seven games.
The 46 wins by the Wizards are the most since the 1978-79 season, where they won 54 games, where they made it all the way to the NBA Finals and fell to the then Seattle Supersonics in five games.
This season has just left many expecting more from these two teams and the loser of this series faces some likely changes this summer. It is likely that Wizards’ head coach Randy Wittman or Raptors head coach Dwane Casey could be gone if their team cannot advance.
-Prediction: Raptors in seven games.

(2)   Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics

       (53-29)                              (40-42)

-Season series: Tied 2-2
When Akron’s favorite son and four-time MVP LeBron James (25.3 ppg-3rd NBA, 6.0 rpg, 7.4 apg) returned to the Cavaliers and they acquired Kevin Love this past summer, the Cavaliers and first-year head coach David Blatt went from a team rebuilding to one that was expected to contend for a title.
The honeymoon ended in the blink of an eye as the team was 19-20 when the New Year rolled around. On top of that, the team’s physical force in the paint Anderson Varejao sustained a season-ending injury early and the frontcourt became very thin.
When the team acquired Timofey Mozgov (10.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg) from the Denver Nuggets and J.R. Smith (12.7 ppg39.0 3-Pt.%) and Iman Shumpert (7.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg) from the New York Knicks back in January, the Cavs took off going 34-9 to close the season.
Prior the acquisition of Mosgov, the Cavs were just 19-17 with +0.9 point differential; shooting just 34.5 percent from three-point range; averaging 41.1 rebounds per game and just 12.0 second chance points. With Mozgov starting in the middle, the Cavs went 34-12 with a +7.3 point differential; shooting 38.0 percent from the three-point arc; averaging 44.5 rebounds per contest and 13.3 second chance points.
Along with James, the Cavs are going to go as far as the play of Love (16.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 36.7 3-Pt.%) and Kyrie Irving (21.7 ppg, 46.8 FG%, 41.5 3-Pt.%).
While they are playoff infants, they are expected alongside James to rise to the moment and deliver. Love has to play to the level where teams have to game plan for him. At times this season he has been confused about his role as just a three-point shooter. It is up to him and coach Blatt to make sure Love is involved at the offensive end, especially in the paint.
The Cavs opposition, the Celtics have proven this season you can be in rebuilding mode and win basketball games.
Since Feb, 2 only the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, the Golden State Warriors and the aforementioned Cavs have won more games than the Celtics who have gone 24-12 in that stretch.
When this team traded their two best players Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green to the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies respectably earlier this season, many thought the Celtics chances of making the playoffs were just a dream.
Sixth Man of the Year candidate in guard Isaiah Thomas, who the Celtics acquired from the Suns and has averaged 19.0 points per game made it a reality.
Since the trade of Jeff Green, the Celtics have gone 27-19, averaging 100.4 points, 23.9 assists per contest and 17.3 points off of turnovers.
Defensively since Feb. 2, they have limited 14 teams to 94 points or less and they have proven they can stand tall when the game is close as they have won 11 games by six points or less, which consists of four wins at the buzzer.
This nucleus of Thomas, Avery Bradley (13.9 ppg, 35.2 3-Pt.%), Brandon Bass (10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Jared Sullinger (13.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Kelly Olynyk (10.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 34.9 3-Pt.%), Tyler Zeller (10.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Evan Turner (9.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.5 apg), Jae Crowder, rookie Marcus Smart (7.8 ppg, 3.1 apg) and Jonas Jerebko (7.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 40.6 3-Pt.%) are showing under second-year head coach Brad Stevens that the future is bright in “Bean Town.”
With that being said, this series is all about the Cavs. They have the star power. The fire power and all the motivation in the world to deliver the first professional sports title to the city Cleveland in a little over five decades.

-Prediction: Cavs in four.

(3)   Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks

       (50-32)                      (41-41)

-Season series: Bulls won 3-1

When this season began, many had the Chicago Bulls, not the Cavs as the team to beat in the East and maybe even the whole league.
The return of Derrick Rose from injury. The addition of Pau Gasol to a front line that consisted of last year’s Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah (7.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 4.5 apg), Taj Gibson and rookies Nikola Mirotic (10.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Doug McDermott. They also added Aaron Brooks in the backcourt to go alongside swingman Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler.
The season went like the past three have for the Bulls. The likes of Rose, Butler, Gibson, Dunleavy and McDermott combined to miss 164 games because of injury. 
The big one was Rose, who had missed just about the last two seasons because of serious knee injuries, which stems from the 2012 playoff opener against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The difference this season from the last two under head coach Tom Thibodeau is having Gasol (18.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg-4th NBA, 1.9 bpg-led team) who had a league leading 54 double-doubles this season; the career season of Butler (20.0 ppg-led team, 5.8 rpg, 1.8 spg-led team, 46.2 FG%, 37.8 3-Pt.%) and the strong play of Brooks (11.6 ppg, 38.7 3-Pt.%), who averaged 15.5 and 12.4 points in the months of March and April respectably and Mirotic, who averaged 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in March.
If not for the historic seasons by the Warriors and Hawks, Bucks’ first-year head coach and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd would be hands down coach of the year.
Last year, the Bucks were 15-67 and allowed 103.7 points per game. This season, the finished at .500 and while they scored an average of just 97.8 points per contest, they allowed just 97.4.
They started the season 30-23, doubling their win total from a season ago. They unfortunately lost forward Jabari Parker, the No. 2 overall pick in this past summer’s draft to a torn ACL he sustained back on Dec. 15, 2014 at the Phoenix Suns.
At the trade deadline, the Bucks traded then starting lead guard and borderline All-Star Brandon Knight to the Phoenix Suns in three-team trade and acquired from the Sixers guard Michael Carter-Williams (14.1 ppg 5.6 apg, 2.0 spg). The team also acquired forward/center Miles Plumlee and guard Tyler Ennis.
While the team went 11-18 after the trade, they did show flashes of what the future can be, especially in their only win against the Bulls this season.
In the Bucks 95-91 win versus their Central Division rivals, Carter-Williams had 21 points and 10 rebounds on 9 for 14 shooting.
The Bucks defense in that contest held the Bulls to just 41.9 percent shooting, had 11 steals and forced 18 turnovers, which they converted into 15 points. The Bucks also out-rebounded the Bulls 48-40, including 20-12 on the offensive glass.
Like the Celtics, the Bucks future is very solid with Parker, Carter-Williams, Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Ersan Ilyasova (11.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg 47.2 FG%, 38.9 3-Pt.%), O.J. Mayo (11.4 ppg 35.7 3-Pt.%), Khris Middleton (13.4 ppg, 46.7 FG%, 40.7 3-Pt.%), who is a free agent at season’s end, ZaZa Pachulia (8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and John Henson (7.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg-led team).
With that being said, the Bulls are one a mission to finally get to The Finals. This is the best team Rose has had around him in his career and it is now or never for the Bulls to get over the hump and win a title.
-Prediction: Bulls in four.

Western Conference

(1)   Golden State Warriors vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans

            (67-15)                                      (45-37)

-Season series: Warriors won 3-1
When the Warriors went on a franchise record 16-game winning streak from Nov. 13, 2014 to Dec. 14, 2014, the question was are they under rookie head coach and five-time champion Steve Kerr the real deal. They answered with a high pitched shout it to the roof top yes!
They became the 10th team in NBA history to win 67 games in a regular season. They won their first Pacific Division title in 39 seasons. They won a franchise record 39 games out of 41 tries at Oracle Arena and a franchise record 28 games on the road.
All-Star guard Stephen Curry (23.8 ppg-leads team 7.7 apg-leads team 2.0 spg-4th NBA), who made an NBA record 286 three-pointers in the regular season is the likely MVP. Draymond Green (11.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg-leads team, 3.7 apg, 1.6 spg) is in the running for Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year. Fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson (21.7 ppg, 46.3 FG%, 43.9 3-Pt.%) has been out of this world. Marreese Speights (10.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Harrison Barnes (10.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg 48.2 FG%, 40.5 3-Pt.%) are having career years. Starting center Andrew Bogut (6.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg) has been a solid presence in the paint and the bench of the aforementioned Speights, David Lee (7.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala and Leandro Barbosa have been magnificent.
They became the sixth team in NBA history to finish in the top three in offensive rating and defensive rating in the regular season.
The task now, win 16 more games and capture their first NBA title since 1975.
That journey begins against the New Orleans Pelicans, making their first playoff appearance since 2011.
They are led by the sensational former No. 1 overall pick and two-time All-Star Anthony Davis (24.4 ppg-4th NBA, 10.2 rpg-leads team, 2.9 bpg-leads NBA), who along with DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings and LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers are the only players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds this season.
The 22-year-old Davis was at his absolute best this past Wednesday night versus the defending champion Spurs with a game-high 31 points to go along with 13 rebounds and three blocks in leading the Pelicans to a 108-103 win to clinch the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the West. It was the second straight win by the Pelicans and their sixth in nine tries in the month of April.
A big reason why they are in the postseason and the Oklahoma City Thunder are not is despite having the same identical records, the Pelicans won the season series over the Thunder 3-1 and Davis got them their third victory, a 116-113 thriller in Oklahoma City with a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer on Feb. 6.
While Davis may be the headline of this series, if the Pelicans are going to compete against the favored Warriors, they will need the supporting cast of Tyreke Evans (16.6 ppg, 6.6 apg, 5.3 rpg), Eric Gordon (13.4 ppg, 44.8 3-Pt.%), Ryan Anderson (13.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 34.0 3-Pt.%), Jrue Holiday (14.8 ppg, 6.9 apg, 1.6 spg-leads team), Quincy Pondexter (9.0 ppg, 43.3 3-Pt.%), Omer Asik (7.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and Norris Cole (9.9 ppg, 37.8 3-Pt.%) to play well.  
-Prediction: Warriors in five.

(4)   Portland Trail Blazers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

       (51-31)                                        (55-27)

-Season series: Grizzlies won 4-0.  
The playoffs are very often a war of attrition.
The matchup between the Northwest Division champion Trail Blazers and the Grizzlies represents two literally and figuratively limping into the postseason.
The Grizzlies, who will have home court advantage virtue of having a better record have two key members of their team hobbled entering the playoffs.
Starting guard Mike Conley (15.8 ppg, 5.4 apg, 44.6 FG%) has missed the final four games of the regular season because of a sprained right foot and defensive perimeter ace Tony Allen has been down the last nine games because of pulled left hamstring. All-Star starting center Marc Gasol (17.4 ppg-leads teams, 7.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.6 bpg-leads team) with a left ankle sprain earlier in the week, but showed up and was great to the tune of a career-high 33 points and 13 rebounds in the Grizzlies 95-83 win versus the Pacers this past Wednesday night.
The Trail Blazers have been dealing with injury issues of their own over the past few months.
Back-up center Chris Kaman (8.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) has been dealing with pain in his lower back. Starting small forward Nicholas Batum (9.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.8 apg) bruised his right knee on Monday in the Trail Blazers 101-91 at the Thunder, missing their season finale, a 114-98 loss at the Dallas Mavericks. Reserve guard C.J. McCollum (6.8 ppg, 39.6 3-Pt.%) has been dealing with a sprained left ankle. Guard Arron Afflalo (10.6 ppg, 40.0 3-Pt.%) strained his right shoulder back on Apr. 9 at the Warriors and has missed the last four games. Starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews was lost for the rest of the season back on Mar. 5 versus the Mavericks when he tore his left Achilles that required surgery and backup forward Dorell Wright is on the mend because of fractured right hand. Even All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge has been on the mend with a sore foot and he has been playing for much of this season with a torn ligament in his left thumb.
To put what the Trail Blazers are going through in perspective, a season ago, head coach Terry Stotts had to use only two different starting lineups. This season, he had to patch together 20 different starting quintets.  
In looking at the optics of this series we have the Trail Blazers built around offense led by Aldridge (23.4 ppg-leads team, 10.2 rpg) and Damian Lillard (21.0 ppg, 6.2 apg, 4.5 rpg) and eighth best three-point shooting team in terms of percentage at 36.2; sixth in makes from distance at 9.8 and third in attempts at 27.2. They are ninth in the league in scoring at 102.8 points per contest.
Along with Aldridge and Lillard, the Trail Blazers will need more from the remaining healthy bodies in starting center Robin Lopez (9.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Meyers Leonard (5.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 42.0 3-Pt.%), backup guard Steve Blake and center Joel Freeland.
The meat and potatoes of the Grizzlies is on the defensive end and scoring in the paint.
Only the Utah Jazz allowed the fewest points per contest than the Grizzlies at 95.1 per game. They were ranked 10th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.2. They were tied for sixth in steals per game at 8.5 and were tied for ninth in forced turnovers per game at 14.6.
On the offensive end, everything begins and ends with Gasol and Zach Randolph (16.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg-7th NBA, 48.7 FG%).
One big weakness the Grizzlies have is their ability to strike a match from the perimeter. For them to win this series and beyond, Vince Carter, Jeff Green (13.1 ppg, 36.2 3-Pt.%), Courtney Lee (10.1 ppg, 44.8 FG%, 40.2 3-Pt.%) and Beno Udrih (7.7 ppg, 48.7 FG%) are going to have to make some jump shots to keep the Trail Blazers defense honest and not just sink down in the paint and be a bother to Gasol and Randolph.
The Grizzlies will also need to stay even on the glass as the Trail Blazers are 10th in the league in rebound differential at a +1.3, while they are 13th at a +0.2.
-Prediction: Grizzlies in six.

(2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks

       (56-26)                           (50-32)

-Season series: Rockets won 3-1
Twenty years ago, the Houston Rockets led by Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler as the No. 6 Seed made a remarkable run to their second straight title. The hope is that history will repeat itself in the 2015 playoffs lead by MVP candidate James Harden and center Dwight Howard.
Harden (27.4 ppg-2nd NBA, 7.0 apg-leads team, 5.7 rpg 1.9 spg-T-5th NBA, 37.5 3-Pt.%), who lead the Rockets to the Southwest Division title, their first since winning the Midwest Division in 1993-94 had the best season of his career leading the league in points scored (2,717), free throws made (715) and attempted at (824). He was third in total steals at 154 and fourth in three-pointer made at 208. He also had 35 games of 30 points or more and the Rockets won 30 of those games.
Harden’s great season despite Howard (15.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg-leads team) missing close to six weeks because of pain and swelling in his right knee and starting forward Terrence Jones (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 35.1 3-Pt.%) missed 49 games because of nerve injury in his leg.
With starting lead guard Patrick Beverly (10.1 ppg, 35.6 3-Pt.%) and reserve forward/center Donatas Motiejunas (12.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 36.8 3-Pt.%) out for the playoffs with wrist and back surgeries respectably, that means more responsibility to Harden, who shot just 37.6 percent and 39.1 percent in Rockets first round setbacks to the Trail Blazers and the Thunder the last two postseasons.
Can Howard return to the form that he was at in last season’s playoffs, where he averaged 26.0 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in the six-game setback versus the Trail Blazers?
The Rockets will also need Josh Smith (12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Jason Terry, Corey Brewer (11.9 ppg), Trevor Ariza (12.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 spg, 35.0 3-Pt.%) and Pablo Prigioni to play well.
Last season, the Dallas Mavericks put a scare into the eventual champion Spurs in round one before they were sent home in Game 7.
The signing of Chandler Parsons (15.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 46.2 FG%, 38.0 3-Pt.%), who has been on the shelf the last six games because of right knee soreness away from the Rockets this summer and the acquisition of Rajon Rondo from the Celtics in December 2014 was supposed to put the Mavericks in the thick of things in the West.
Since being 19-7 before Rondo was acquired, the Mavs have gone 31-24 with him and have been out of rhythm more often than not on both ends. Without Beverly to be a major pest, Rondo should dominate versus Terry and Prigioni.
They need more than anything for Parsons, It is hard to fathom talking about the Mavericks and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki (17.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 45.9 FG%, 38.0 3-Pt.%) and Monta Ellis (18.9 ppg-leads team, 1.9 spg-leads team) are not at the head of the conversation.
If the Mavs plan on advancing though, those two will have to bring it. They will also need major contributions from center Tyson Chandler (10.3 ppg, 11.5 rpg-5th NBA), guards Devin Harris (8.8 ppg, 35.7 3-Pt.%), J.J. Barea (7.5 ppg) and Amar’e Stoudemire (10.8 ppg).  
In the playoffs, it is the little things that can make a big difference in winning and losing. One small aspect that might tell the tale of this series is at the free throw line.
The Mavericks rank 16th in the league shooting at 75.2 percent, while the Rockets, who attempt the second most in the league at 26.0 per game, but are 27th in percentage at 71.5 percent. The reason that is an issue is that Howard and Smith shoot 52.8 and 49.8 percent respectably from the charity stripe and there have been times this season that teams have gone to fouling them to put them at the line to slow the moment of the Rockets down and get back into the game. The Mavs have a bad foul shooter as well in Rondo, who shoots 41.7 percent.
This series has it all. To teams from the same state. Parsons trying to stick it to his former team. An All-Star in Harden trying to prove he can be the guy to lead his team to the promise land. Nowitzki trying to make one more championship run with a prior champion in Rondo by his side. Two of the best offenses in the game.
-Prediction: Rockets in six.
(3)   Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs

       (56-26)                                      (55-27)

-Season series: Tied 2-2
NBA on TNT analyst Kenny Smith said something about the NBA that has stuck with me for a long time. He said something of the fact that the regular season you make your name. In the playoffs, you make your fame.
One team in this series has made their name in the regular season and their fame in the postseason and the other has made their name in the regular season, but has yet to make their fame in the playoffs.  
The Spurs have made a great name for themselves in the regular season winning 50 games or more for 15 straight seasons. The trio of Tim Duncan (13.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg-leads team, 2.0 bpg-leads team), Manu Ginobili (10.5 ppg, 4.2 apg, 34.5 3-Pt.%) and Tony Parker (14.4 ppg 4.9 apg, 48.6 FG%) have lead the Spurs to four of their five NBA titles and head coach Gregg Popovich has been on the sidelines for all five of the Spurs triumphs.
The future Hall of Fame trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili has won 117 postseason games, the most all-time in NBA history.
This season has been different in a lot of ways. One way is that the team has had to deal with a lot of injuries to key players like Parker and Ginobili as well as center Tiago Splitter (8.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Patty Mills (6.9 ppg) and last season’s Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (16.5 ppg-leads team, 7.2 rpg, 2.3 spg-leads NBA).
When Leonard has been available for the Spurs they were 46-18. In the 18 games he missed because of a hand injury, they were just 9-9.
After having a losing record on their annual Texas Rodeo Trip, the Spurs won 23 of their final 27 games, which included an 11-game winning streak that ended at the aforementioned Pelicans this past Wednesday.
Their opponents in the opening round the Clippers are making their fourth straight postseason appearance, thanks to tying the second best record in team history and their third consecutive 50-plus win season.
Since the acquisition of lead guard Chris Paul (19.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg-leads NBA, 1.9 spg-5th NBA) the Clippers have not gotten passed the Semifinals in two tries. In Paul’s postseason career, he has played well individually with 29 double-doubles and averages of 20.6 points, 9.7 assists and 2.3 steals on 47.8 percent from the field, but he is just 22-31 in his career with the then New Orleans Hornets and the Clippers
In their last matchup with the Spurs in the Semis in 2012, they were swept 4-0, which also dropped Paul two 0-2 versus the Spurs in the postseason.
The teams split their four meetings in the regular season. In their last meeting on Feb. 19, the Clippers won 119-115 behind 20 points and 16 assists from Paul. The Clippers other All-Star forward Blake Griffin (21.9 ppg-leads team, 7.6 rpg, 8.5 apg) missed the game recovering from an infection in his elbow.
Since his return on Mar. 15 the Clippers have won 14 out of 16 games and look every bit like this postseason will be different. If the Clippers are going to advance, they need Griffin to be a dominant presence in the paint.
One other reason why this postseason might be different is the play of Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeAndre Jordan (11.5 ppg, 15.0 rpg-lead NBA, 2.2 bpg-4th NBA, 71.0 FG%-led NBA), who on 12 occasions this year had over 20 rebounds in a game and the Clippers were 8-4 in those contest.
In a matchup between to very solid teams that are at the top of their game entering the postseason, it comes down who can win the games within the game.
For instance, will Jordan be able to knock down free throws if the Spurs go to the hack-a-Jordan strategy. In the aforementioned matchup between these two teams back in February, Jordan attempted 28 free throws and made just 10. If the Clippers do not want this to happen, Jordan must shoot better than 39.7 percent, which he did from the charity stripe.
If the Clippers want to beat the defending champs, they cannot get rattled. They have to be able to play through tough calls by the officials.
Last but not least, the supporting cast of the Clippers not named J.J. Redick (16.4 ppg, 47.7 FG%, 43.7 3-Pt.%) and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford (15.8 ppg), who missed 17 games late in the season because of a calf injury must be a factor. The Clippers need big time contributions from the likes of Glen Davis, Spencer Hawes (5.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), Matt Barnes (10.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 36.2 3-Pt.%), Austin Rivers (7.1 ppg) and Hedo Turkoglu.
A matchup like this on the best of terms happens in the Conference Finals. One of these teams will see their season end in disappointment.
-Prediction: Spurs in seven.
Information and statistics are courtesy of 4/16/15 6 p.m. NBATV’s “The Starters” NBA Playoff Preview with Trey Kerby, J.E. Skeets, Tas Melas and Leigh Ellis; 4/16/15 7 p.m. Eastern Conference Playoff Preview on NBATV with Matt Winer, Dennis Scott and Mike Fratello; 4/16/15 8 p.m. Western Conference Playoff Preview on NBATV with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Mike Fratello;;;


Sunday, April 12, 2015

J-Speaks: NBA Awards in Focus

As the NBA playoffs near, the debate is heating up on who will capture some serious hardware for their stellar work this season. Last week I talked about the tight race for the 2015 Most Valuable Player Award (MVP). In this post, I will bring into focus the candidates for Most Improved Player; Sixth Man of the Year; Rookie of the Year; Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year for the 2015 NBA campaign.

Rookie of the Year
From the start of this season, the 2015 Rookie class was one of the most hyped up classes in recent memory. Many of the first year players were touted as the building blocks for their team’s bright future. While some of them have gotten off to tough starts, one rookie has stood out amongst them all.
That is the leading candidate in swingman Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While the all-around numbers have been solid for the No. 1 overall pick in from this past June’s draft, the newest sensation from Canada has risen his game each month of this season.
He averaged 12.3 and 14.6 points on just 39.9 and 40.9 percent shooting respectably in Nov. and Dec. 2014. Wiggins has averaged 14.6, 19.8, 16.8 and 17.9 points in the months of Jan., Feb. and Mar. and his shooting percentage was better in Jan. and Feb. where he shot 47.1 and 45.7 percent respectably.  
To put this in a better perspective, since the All-Star break, Wiggins is averaging 20.1 points per contest on 45 percent from the floor and he is getting to the free throw line an average of 7.7 times per contest, shooting 78.5 percent.
The emergence of Wiggins has been a bright spot in a season where the Twelves (16-64) have had a lot of losses as well as injuries to the likes of Kevin Martin, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammed, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Garnett and Anthony Bennett, a fellow Canadian and the No. 1 overall pick two years ago.
While other rookies like Nerlens Noel (9.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 1.8 spg) of the Philadelphia 76ers, who averaged 14.3 points, 11.2 boards, 2.1 blocks and 2.4 steals and Nikola Mirotic (10.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) of the Chicago Bulls, who averaged 20.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and scored a league leading 136 in the fourth quarter in March have come on in the past month, it is Wiggins who has been the most consistent rookie and is my choice for Rookie of the Year.

Sixth Man of the Year
When you think of this particular award, it is one that goes to the player who can come into the game and not only strike a match offensively, but can turn the game into their team’s favor and play a major role in the outcome of that particular contest.
That perfectly describes the first candidate in two-time winner Jamal Crawford (16.1 ppg) of the Los Angeles Clippers, who captured this honor in 2010 with the Atlanta Hawks and last season with the Los Angeles Clippers.
He joined 15-year veteran Ricky Pierce and former All-Star forward Detlef Schrempf as the only players to win Sixth Man of the Year twice in their careers. If Crawford were to win the award this season, he would become the all-time winner with three.
In both seasons that he won, Crawford was the top scorer off the bench averaging 18.0 and 18.6 points per game respectably.
The last six players to win this award, five of them led the league in points per contest off the pine. Then Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom, who won Sixth Man of the Year in 2011 finished third in scoring off the bench with 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and three assists.
Another strong candidate for this award is Isaiah Thomas (16.5 ppg, 4.2 apg, 37.1 3-Pt.%) of the Boston Celtics.
It is very rare that a player who can come into the game for one team and really play very well can do that same thing for another team midseason.
Well the namesake of the two-time NBA champion, one of the 50 Greatest Players ever and a Hall of Famer with the Detroit Pistons has done just that since joining the Celtics via a trade by the Phoenix Suns back in February.
Thomas has averaged 19.6 points and 5.3 assists since joining the Celtics (37-42) and is be a big reason why they are on the cusp of one of the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, where they stand at the No. 7 position right now.
He was spectacular this past Wednesday night, when he scored a game-high 34 points off the bench, going 10 for 17 from the floor, including 4 for 8 from three-point range, 10 for 11 from the free throw line and six assists in leading the Celtics to a 113-103 win at the Pistons (30-49) in front of a nationally televised audience.
The third candidate is Marreese Speights of the Golden State Warriors (65-15), owners of the best record in the NBA and No. 1 Seed in the West.
While “The Splash Brothers” of Stephen Curry, my pick for MVP and Klay Thompson may grab all the headlines and they are deserving of those, the Warriors are having their best season in franchise history is because of the career season by the No. 16 overall pick in the 2008 Draft out of Florida (10.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg 49.8 FG%), who is averaging career-highs in points, field goal percentage and free throw percentage at 84.1 percent.
The final candidate is Lou Williams (15.5 ppg) of the back-to-back Atlantic Division champion Toronto Raptors (48-32).
After seven seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, the No. 45 overall pick out of South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, GA signed with the Atlanta Hawks on July 12, 2012.
Williams’ joined the Raptors this off-season via a trade from the Atlanta Hawks. He joined them just two years removed from a torn ACL he sustained back on Jan. 18, 2013 at the Brooklyn Nets.  
The question coming into the season, could the native from Lithonia, GA returned to the form that made him one of the best instant offensive players in the game.
On Nov. 22, 2014, he answered that question in a major way with a career-high 36 points off the bench going 9 for 19 from the field and 15 for 15 from the charity stripe in leading the Raptors to a 110-93 at the Cleveland Cavaliers.
My choice for Sixth Man of the Year is Williams. While Crawford has the better scoring average, Williams has played more games, 79 to Crawford’s 61 appearances due to a calf strain sustained in a 110-105 win at the Timberwolves on Mar. 2 that put him on the shelf for 17 games.

Most Improved Player
There are players who enter the NBA and grasp the game right away and they hit the ground running. For other players, it takes time for them to really grasp what kind of player they can be in the league and how they can help their team succeed.
The four players up for Most Improved Player not only had the best season of their careers, but have established themselves as major building blocks for their respective team and have big pay days on the horizon.
Chicago Bulls (48-32) swingman Jimmy Butler, the 30th overall pick in 2011 out of Marquette found a way onto the court by being a solid team defender and individual defender for head coach Tom Thibodeau. 
Last season, Butler averaged 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 67 games per contest, all of which came as a starter after averaging 2.6 and 8.9 in 124 games respectably in his first two seasons, starting a total of 20 times.
This season, Butler has become the Bulls’ leading scorer at 20.0 points per game, while also averaging 5.8 boards, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals on 45.9 percent from the field and career-highs of 36.7 percent from three-point range and 83.8 percent from the free throw line.
He has expanded his game to where he can make shots from the perimeter, three-point range and he has shown the ability to score off the bounce and drawing fouls that get him to the charity stripe, where he attempts 7.1 per contest this season.
Butler’s incredible play on both ends as well as the play of Pau Gasol (18.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg-4th NBA, 1.9 bpg-leads team), who established a new Bulls record with 52 double-doubles this season and the aforementioned Mirotic in recent games are why the Chicago Bulls have remained in the top tier of the East, despite that key cogs Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson. Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich and Doug McDermott have missed a lot of games because of injury.
To put Butler’s numbers into perspective, he has scored 20 points or more 33 times this season and on seven occasions he scored 30 points or more. He had a career-high 35 points on Dec. 18 2014 when the Bulls won versus the New York Knicks (16-64) 103-97 and in the Bulls 123-118 overtime setback at the Lakers (21-58) on Jan. 29.
The aforementioned Warriors are having the best season in franchise history is because of Curry and Thompson; career seasons from Speights, third-year forward Harrison Barnes (10.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 48.3 FG%, 40.1 3-Pt.%) and the next candidate Draymond Green, who is also up for another award. More on that later.
Green, the 35th overall pick out of Michigan State University in 2012 Draft came into this league as a player who would bring an energy and toughness to the hardwood.
This season, he had risen game across the board with career-high averages of 11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per contest.
While his high energy got him on the court in his first two seasons under former head coach and now NBA on ESPN/ABC analyst Mark Jackson, his solid numbers are due to the fact that All-Star forward David Lee was injured at the start of the season, which made first-year head coach and five-time NBA champion with the Bulls and San Antonio Spurs Steve Kerr make his first big decision on who starts at the power forward spot. He found that replacement in Green and he has been as good as gold as a starter.
The result 65 wins and counting and the team’s first Pacific Division crown in 39 seasons.
When the season for the Utah Jazz (37-43) began, there was very little thought about current starting center Rudy Gobert being a fixture in the plans for the future.
That all changed at the trade deadline back in February when the Jazz traded then starting center Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Prior to the All-Star break, Gobert, who is from France averaged a respectable 6.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 21.9 minutes. Since then, he has averaged 10.9 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in 34.9 minutes. He had nine double-doubles prior to the All-Star break. Since then, Gobert has garnered 15 double-doubles.
Gobert has averaged a double-double of 10.9 points and 14.9 rebounds and 11.7 points and 11.8 rebounds in the months of March and so far in April, while also averaging 2.3 and 2.0 blocks shots respectably.  
If Gobert can continue to develop his body and his game, the Jazz will have something they have not had since Mark Eaton. A legitimate starting center, only Gobert has some ability at the offensive end to go along with his remarkable ability to block shots and rebound.
The future looks even brighter for the Jazz with the young core of Trey Burke, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum, Alec Burks and Gobert. If they can bring in some solid veteran players, Quin Snyder’s team may be contending for a playoff spot next season.
Around this time a season ago, the Miami Heat (35-45) were gearing up for a three-peat. This season, the four-time Eastern Conference champs are not even going to make the playoffs.
There has been one shining light and that has been Hassan Whiteside (11.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg-leads team, 2.5 bpg-leads team).
After bottoming out with the Sacramento Kings, the former No. 33 overall pick out of Marshall in 2010 went from playing in the NBA Developmental League to playing in China and Lebanon.
The Heat gave the second chance that he was looking for when he was signed on Nov. 24, 2014.
He recorded the first double-double of his career with 11 points, 10 boards to go along with five blocks in Miami’s 88-84 win versus the Brooklyn Nets (36-42).
In the Heat’s 104-90 victory at the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 11, Whiteside had a then career-high 23 points to go along with 16 boards, two steals and two blocks.
He introduced himself to the nation with a historic first career triple-double of 14 points, 13 rebounds and a Heat franchise record 12 blocks in a 96-84 victory at the Bulls 14 days later. Whiteside became just the fourth player in the last 25 seasons to have at least 12 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks in a game and is the first since the late Manute Bol to record 12 blocks off the bench in 25 minutes or fewer.
Despite falling on Feb. 4 at the Timberwolves 102-101, Whiteside had another strong performance with 24 points on 12 for 13 from the floor to go along with 20 rebounds, becoming just the fourth player in NBA history to hit 90 percent of his field goal attempts while registering a 20/20 game.
The only thing that can keep Whiteside from reaching his full potential is himself as he was suspended for one game without pay after striking Celtics’ forward Kelly Olynyk during the Heat’s 100-90 loss on Mar. 9.
One thing is for sure about these four candidates, they will be paid handsomely when they hit the free agent market. For Butler and Green, that will be this off-season.
Jimmy Butler is my choice for Most Improved Player because he went from a role player to a vital piece of the Bulls’ puzzle. Not many players can go just from being a role player to a top notch offensive player and then become a first-time All-Star on top of that.

Defensive Player of the Year
Traditionally, this award which began in 1983 has gone to more often a center like Hall of Famers David Robinson; Hakeem Olajuwon, a two-time winner; Alonzo Mourning, a two-time winner, soon to be Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace, a four-time winner, Marcus Camby, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol and last year’s winner Joakim Noah.
Among guards and forwards that have won the award in NBA history include Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Gary Payton; Sidney Moncrief, a two-time winner; Alvin Robertson; five-time NBA champion Michael Cooper; Dennis Rodman, a two-time winner and Metta World Peace, formally Ron Artest.
Three of the four candidates are centers and one forward, who has shown he can guard all five positions.
Over the last few seasons, the Memphis Grizzlies (53-25) have been first and foremost a team that is predicated on getting stops consistently in games and this season is no different.
They are second in points allowed at 95.0; 10th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.1 percent; No. 7 in steals at 8.5 and No. 9 in forced turnovers per contest at 14.6.
Anchoring that defense is Gasol (17.5 ppg-leads team), who is averaging 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per contest.
While the Warriors have been great at the offensive end this season, they are a top the West because of their stellar play at the defensive end and Draymond Green is a big reason for that.
One of the great strengths of the aforementioned Rodman in his Hall of Fame career was his ability to defend guards, forwards and centers. That is the same skill that Green brings to the table.
On many occasions this season, Green has guarded many perimeter players as well as forwards and centers in the post and has more than held his own.
That has helped Golden State hold the opposition to an NBA best 42.7 percent from the field and tied for fourth in opponent’s three-point percentage at 33.7 percent. They are fifth in rebounds per game at 44.8 per game; second in block shots per contest at 6.0; fourth in steals per game at 9.3 and tied for fourth in forced turnovers at 15.5.
While he might have come on late in the season, Gobert of the Jazz has been a major factor in the Jazz being one of the best defenses in the league.
His shot blocking and shot changing ability is a big reason why the Jazz lead the NBA in points allowed at 94.7; tied for No. 3 in blocks per game at 6.0 and for No. 1 in rebound differential at +4.8.
Ever since Glenn “Doc” Rivers has been the head coach of the Clippers, he had made DeAndre Jordan into a borderline All-Star. His advice to him starting back a season ago was to focus on rebounding, blocking shots and only shoot when you are in close to the basket.
That has worked for Jordan (11.4 ppg), who leads the league this season in rebounds per game and field goal percentage 14.9 and 70.9 percent respectably, while ranking fourth in the NBA in blocks per contest at 2.2.
Jordan had one of the best games of his career when he had 22 points, a career-high 27 rebounds and three blocks as the Clippers thumped the Dallas Mavericks (47-31) in their own gym 115-98 on Feb. 9. He followed that up versus the Houston Rockets (53-26) two nights later when he had 24 points, 20 rebounds, three steals and two blocks as the Clippers won 110-95.
Jordan has garnered 20 rebounds or more 12 times this season and the Clippers have gone 8-4 on those occasions.
The Clippers unfortunately are not playing the same kind of defense that they did a season ago. While they are ranked ninth in blocks per game at 5.0; they are just 16th in points allowed at 100.1; 11th in field goal percentage at 44.3 percent; tied for 13th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 34.7 percent and 15th in rebound differential at -0.2.
My choice is Draymond Green for Defensive Player of the Year. There is an old saying in sports. Offense wins games. Defense wins championships. The Warriors have been the best defense in the league and that is why they have a serious chance at winning it all.
Coach of the Year
The first two candidates for this award have led their team to the top of their respective conference and to the highest number of wins in team history and their first division titles in many years. The other two candidates have their teams on the cusp of returning to the playoffs, a place many thought they would not even come close to being at.
When the Warriors fired Mark Jackson in the summer and replaced him with first timer Steve Kerr, it was serious gamble for a team that had won 50-plus game for the first time in two decades.
That gamble has yielded 65 victories a franchise record, with 37 of those victories coming at home, anther franchise record. They won their first Pacific Division title in 39 years when they won at the Portland Trail Blazers (51-29) 122-108 on Mar. 24.
The biggest thing that Kerr did in his first year on the job was convince two former All-Stars in David Lee and Andre Iguodala to come off the bench and they did not squabble about it. That has allowed Green and Barnes to blossom this season and made the Warriors one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Having Curry and Thompson play at a high level has not hurt either.
At the start of the season, many had the Cavaliers and the Bulls as the top two in the East. Nobody had the Atlanta Hawks.
Fast forward to now, those Hawks led by head coach Mike Budenholzer in his second season sit atop the East with a franchise record 60 regular season wins.
In garnering their 60th victory with a 104-80 victory versus the Charlotte Hornets this past Friday night, the Hawks became the 21st franchise to win 60-plus games in a season; the 71st team in NBA history to win 60-plus games in a season and became the fourth team in NBA history to win 60 games or more after having a losing record the season prior, where they Hawks were 38-44 in 2013-14. 
The most they had in franchise history prior to this season was 57 back as the Central Division champs in the 1986-87 season under then head coach now NBA on TNT and color analyst for the Brooklyn Nets Mike Fratello and 1993-94 when they won the Division under then Hall of Fame head coach Lenny Wilkens.
Having All-Star center Al Horford (15.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) healthy has helped a great deal for the Southeast Division champions as well as stellar play from fellow All-Stars Paul Millsap (16.8 ppg-leads team, 7.8 rpg-leads team, 1.8 spg-leads team), Jeff Teague (16.0 ppg, 7.0 apg-leads team). Kyle Korver (12.1 ppg) is having one of the best shooting seasons for a shooter on the opposite side of 30 years old shooting 48.8 percent from the floor and 49.4 percent from three-point territory.
More than anything what has aided the Hawks rise to greatness this season has been the play DeMarre Carroll (12.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 39.7 3-Pt.%) as a solid two-way player; Dennis Schroder (9.8 ppg, 4.2 apg) who has shown he can be a great understudy to Teague and the contributions from Mike Scott (7.7 ppg, 34.3 3-Pt.%), Pero Antic, Shelvin Mack and Kent Bazemore off the bench.
Budenholzer, who is a longtime assistant of the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs has been able to implement his system complete in year two and it has worked very well. The Hawks rank second in the league in assists at 25.9 and rank 11th in scoring at 102.7 per game. Defensively, the Hawks are sixth in points allowed surrendering just 96.9 per contest.
While they have been a solid team in the regular season, the question going into the playoffs about the Hawks is who is their go to guy at the offensive end?
Their will come a point where they will get challenge by their opponent and who will be the person to step up and carry them, particularly offensively when things get tough?
For the Milwaukee Bucks (39-40) and the Celtics, the fact that they are in the position to make the postseason after what happen to both a season ago is nothing short of remarkable.
When the Celtics traded lead guard Rajon Rondo and forward Jeff Green earlier in the season, many thought that all was lost on the season.
They were 16-30 on Feb. 1. Since then, the C’s have gone 21-12 since.  
With all the draft picks that the team has acquired and the fact that they are fighting to get into the playoffs is a testament to the leadership of head coach Brad Stevens and General Manager and former Celtic champion Danny Ainge.
Last season, the Bucks went 15-67, their worst record in franchise history. In the off-season, the team acquired a new head coach in Jason Kidd and in the Draft this past summer selected with the No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker out of Duke University.
The Bucks played very steady for much of this season and at one point were solidly in the playoff picture at 30-23 on Feb. 11 after a 111-103 win versus the Sacramento Kings (27-52), especially after losing Parker to a torn ACL in their 96-94 win at the Phoenix Suns (39-41) on Dec. 15, 2014.
At the trade deadline, they shook the team up by shipping out lead guard Brandon Knight, who as a borderline All-Star in the first half of the season to the Phoenix Suns for guard Tyler Ennis and forward/center Miles Plumlee. They also acquired last season’s Rookie of the Year in Michael Carter-Williams (14.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.7 spg) from the Philadelphia 76ers for draft picks.
While the team has gone 9-17 since being seven games over .500, the fact that the Milwaukee Bucks are on the verge of making it to the postseason is a testament to the new ownership and their hard work in combination with Kidd and the players on the court.
Like the aforementioned Jazz, the Bucks with what they have shown this season have a bright future with Parker (12.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 49.0 FG% in 25 games) when he returns next season, Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 49.7 FG%), Khris Middleton (13.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.6 spg, 46.2 FG%, 40.9 3-Pt.%), O.J. Mayo (11.2 ppg, 35.6 3-Pt.%), Ersan Ilyasova (11.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 37.5 3-Pt.%), Jerryd Bayless (7.9 ppg) and ZaZa Pachulia (8.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg).
My choice for Coach of the Year Steve Kerr. To win at a consistent level in a tough Western Conference and to win a record number of games in your first chance is special. Not many can take over a team that is on the rise and make it better. Kerr did that and they can hopefully finish the deal with a title.
Information and statistics are courtesy of 4/4/15 3 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime” with Rick Kamla, Dennis Scott and Vinny Del Negro; 4/6/15 5:30 p.m. NBATV’s “The Starters-The Starties Award Show” with Trey Kerby, J.E. Skeets, Tas Melas, Leigh Ellis and Kristen Ledlow;;;;; “Sporting News” Official 2006-07 NBA Guide.